Big Questions About Style

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Writers and editors constantly talk about style. We hash out what to capitalize, how to format dates, when to word mash, if we use serial commas, how to format room numbers, and on. Long-held obsessions and personal preference drive what we fight for and what we choose to let go.

These conversations might seem tiresome—even absurd—to the outsider (as a recent Onion headline illustrates), but my fellow editors at Bethel will likely agree that, most days, we enjoy debating the minutia of style.

Although we’re wired to nitpick, it’s all too easy to get lost in the details. When we spend too much energy on hyphen placement we lose sight of the bigger questions driving our strategy, and we run the danger of producing well-styled but pointless content.

Can print and web have different styles?

Can they? Yes. And should they? Probably, but it’s not that easy.

The simple answer is that print and web aren’t the same medium. Generally, print readers have different needs, goals, and expectations than web users. Think about how you read a magazine versus how you browse the web. I know I devote more focused attention to a feature story in my alma mater’s alumni magazine than the online schedule for homecoming.

Based on my experience, placing web writing in the box of traditional print doctrine can sometimes constrain the flexibility needed to construct actionable, scannable, info-rich language. For example, numerical digits (e.g. 1, 2, 3, etc.) make lists of stats easier to scan. Using postal codes for state abbreviations over traditional AP shorthand saves us characters when screens are small and space is tight. Web language, in most cases, is more conversational—starting sentences with “and” or using sentence fragments.

But the more complex answer is that print versus web might be the wrong question altogether. Perhaps the ways of traditional print are better suited for certain kinds of content—regardless of their medium—such as policies or campus safety reports. Maybe admissions postcards would do well to inherit qualities of the conversational web.

In our editorial shops, I’d like us to move away from the print versus web debate to think critically about what should inform our use of style. Let’s look more closely at the message we want to broadcast or the conversation we want to trigger. We need to consider how our goals and audiences should influence the tone and style of our communication.

How should we enforce style?

University websites, no matter how small the institution, are vast and complex. I constantly question how much our editorial team should (or even can) enforce preferred style within a massive distributed system.

Many hands touch our content, and with those hands come different levels of writing ability and attention to detail. Most web authors disbursed throughout our institutions are busy juggling duties that have nothing to do with their web responsibilities. Staying current with style shouldn’t top their list. That’s our job.

So should marketing teams put webpages through an editorial process to enforce style? The trick here is that web updates typically need to happen quickly. The beauty of the web is its speed and adaptability. Unlike print, content changes can happen fast. But detailed editorial processes take time, and they can strip the medium of its glory.

Here at Bethel, most webpages route through an editor on their way to going live. We don’t catch everything, and that’s not our intent.

It shouldn’t be an editorial team’s top priority to enforce preferred style in all nooks and layers. It’s more important for our web content to be current, useful, and compelling, which is already a huge challenge. That’s where I want our editorial energy applied. And that means the technicalities of style will sometimes suffer.

In the end, style is important, but it’s not the ultimate goal.

When do you break or change style?

In academia, it’s easy to slip into the trap of inertia. The rate of change is slow; we like to stick to our proven practices.

This can be a comforting environment for those who enforce style. We define our style once, and then make sure everything falls in line. Change rarely happens because change breeds inconsistency.

But as writers, we face a tension. We’re also called to be creators, pushing our right brains to craft engaging messages that meet the dynamic needs and hopes of our users. And, if we let our imaginations run, our creations might beg us to break the rules.

In his book 5 Minds for the Future, Howard Gardner identifies qualities of the creator:

“…strikes out in unfamiliar directions and enjoys—or at least accepts—being different from the pack.”

“…perennially dissatisfied with current work, current standards, current questions, current answers.”

If we are creators, we should, at times, feel constricted by the routine of style. A longing to step outside the boundaries should push against our efforts to enforce consistency. The two ideologies should clash.
The creator in us forces us to question what we’ve always done. It’s the part of us that makes mistakes for the sake of trying something brand new.

Just like any editor, I have a sweet tooth for rules and consistency. But when I believe consistent style is the mark of effective messaging, I’m no longer living out my role as creator. When this is the mindset, well-meaning standards and guidelines stifle our creative engines.

It’s challenging to live in the tension between wild creativity and rigid consistency. That’s why we need to engage these big questions and find the right balance for our work and our institution.

So what big style issues do you face? Where are your writers and editors putting their energy? Do you have any advice or stories about managing web style at your university?